Indigenous nurses, activists prepare for 'hell of a day' in Tulsa

Apollonia Piña, an EMT and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, stands outside the medical tent at the Juneteenth celebration in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Friday. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)

Graham Lee Brewer

Ahead of Trump rally, some tribal citizens are getting ready to provide medical and other aid to protesters

Graham Lee Brewer

Special to Indian Country Today

TULSA, Okla. — As residents here prepare for President Donald Trump’s campaign rally Saturday, Indigenous organizers and activists are gearing up to lend themselves to the protests led largely by Black Lives Matter.

On Friday, streets were blocked off near the downtown arena where the rally is set to take place, and some business windows and ATMs were boarded up.

Tens of thousands of Trump supporters are expected at the event, and Black community leaders have said they fear it will spark violence. Gov. Kevin Stitt has activated the Oklahoma National Guard.

This Friday, June 19, photo shows a boarded-up ATM just north of Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)
This Friday, June 19, photo shows a boarded-up ATM just north of Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)

“It’s so surreal, the concrete barricades, the fences,” said Apollonia Piña, a nurse and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Piña and some of her peers, including other Indigenous nurses, have been making plans for weeks, ever since Trump’s rally was announced, to provide aid to protesters who may be injured this weekend.

Piña and her colleagues already were primed for treating people in the street, having just done so at a recent Black Lives Matter rally in Tulsa that ended with a Cherokee Nation citizen paralyzed after a truck drove through protesters who had blocked off a highway.

“We’re going to have a hell of a day tomorrow,” Piña said Friday.

North of downtown, thousands gathered to celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery. People laid on the grass in front of a large stage and mingled around food trucks as local musicians, mayoral candidates and the Rev. Al Sharpton took the stage.

The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks to the crowd at a Juneteenth celebration in the Greenwood District of Tulsa on Friday, June, 19, the evening before President Trump's rally nearby at the BOK Center downtown. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)
The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks to the crowd at a Juneteenth celebration Friday in Tulsa. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)

“When was America great for everybody?” Sharpton asked the crowd.

“You can’t be great when you shoot people down like you did Terrence Crutcher,” he said, referencing Crutcher's death at the hands of a Tulsa police officer in 2016. The shooting drew national attention and eventually led to Officer Betty Shelby’s resignation.

“That is not greatness. Greatness is when Blacks and Whites and Latinos and Asians and original Americans hit the streets all over this country and march against your teargas and march against your rubber bullets and march against a military occupation you threaten,” Sharpton said, with downtown Tulsa over his shoulder.

Two young boys chalk their own messages onto a Black Lives Matter mural on an arts building Friday near downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)
Two young boys chalk their own messages onto a Black Lives Matter mural on an arts building Friday near downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)

The history of Black and Indigenous Oklahomans is intimately intertwined, particularly here in Tulsa, where a 1921 massacre decimated the Greenwood neighborhood.

“That neighborhood literally sits on the border between the Creek and Cherokee nations,” said Eli Grayson, a retired interior designer who has spent the past two decades advocating for the rights of the Creek Freedmen, descendants of former slaves held by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Grayson, a descendant of Creek Freedmen and a citizen of the tribe, said Greenwood was established by Freedmen from the Five Civilized Tribes, who were allotted land prior to statehood.

“It’s the Black urban land ownership of Freedmen from those five tribes,” Grayson said. Those descendants have been fighting for recognition and tribal citizenship for decades, both in tribal and federal courts.

A Black Lives Matter banner hangs from the theater formerly known as Brady Theater, named for a founder of Tulsa a member of the KKK, just west of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)
A Black Lives Matter banner hangs from the theater formerly known as Brady Theater, named for a KKK member, just west of Tulsa's Greenwood District. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)

Grayson said the Freedmen’s collective fights for equal representation within their respective tribes have often been ignored or even vilified by Indigenous tribal citizens, but the current moment has presented an opportunity to push those battles more into the mainstream.

“The institutionalized racism, it’s not just within the state government or the city police department. It’s also within the tribes.”

Grayson, who had just finished speaking at a Juneteenth event in Greenwood on Friday, said those legal and ethical fights for recognition have taken on a new meaning as the country has been roiled by civil unrest over racial inequality and as Trump’s rally looms over Tulsa.

He said tribal citizens who he never expected to come to the aid of the Freedmen have been visible and vocal in their support in recent days.

“I am hopeful,” he said. "I must admit, in 20 years of speaking about this, I’ve seen people evolve."

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Graham Lee Brewer, Cherokee Nation, is an associate editor covering Indigenous affairs at High Country News and an Indian Country Today contributor based in Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter: @grahambrewer.

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